Updated: May 24
When to start lessons, how to being learning and what to focus on when starting piano at a very young age are questions we receive all the time from parents who have children interested in learning piano or keyboard.
From teaching music to young children for many decades and taking on the role of "piano teacher" to our own children we have gained valuable insight that may be of use to others in the same boat. We have pulled out our recommendations to help you, too.
The most crucial thing to remember is this: young children learn best through their own exploration and play. This means we need to try and forget our own agenda and follow their lead when it comes to piano learning, and this can be really tricky, especially for trained teachers!
So how do we do this, and what do we recommend?
Our tips for teaching piano to preschoolers are:
Access to a piano or keyboard (of a proper size) is where it all starts. It needs to be set up in a way that children can explore it in their own time, in their own way and without adult input. Let them discover the piano and realise how much they enjoy playing. They are quick to sense if we try to help them too soon, and we have seen many who have been "put off". Wait. Let them ask questions (or not!)
Put a sticker on Middle C. This way they always know where to find it. Play with finding ALL of the C's on the piano and show them how to.
There is no rush. Children need time to discover how the piano works. That there are high notes, low notes, chords and clashing notes. That some notes sound great together and other notes don't work as well to their ears. They need time to figure out, for themselves, that if you start a little pattern on one particular note, the melody won't sound the same if you start on another note as you have shifted key.
Adjust positioning gently and casually. In our experience, spending too long focusing on hand positioning and posture can backfire. It is really important that children learn these things, but it must be approached casually and gently rather than insisted upon in those early days. We suggest showing them that "spider hands" mean you can move faster - just like a fast spider! That a straight back means you can reach all of the notes - including these funny-sounding very high and very low ones! Keep it light and you are less likely to meet resistance.
Create stories and games. Rather than starting with music, create stories together that the piano accompanies. We love making up stories about ferocious tigers chasing lovely little butterflies, with the angry tigers being the low notes and the butterflies being the high notes. Ket the children play around and choose where each animal should be represented. We slide our fingers up and down to create snakes, play with chromatic scales to create "spooky" sounds for predators and form staccato chords for frogs and leaping rabbits. The key is keeping the process creative and fun.
Read books. Again, the focus is on creativity here and a simple pattern to copy. We love reading stories at the piano, and the child helps to choose where each part of the story could be rep[resented on the piano. For eg, we read Hairy MacLairy and all of the animals have their own sound. ScarFace Claw is a huge run from top to bottom (which always ends in hysterics) every time the phrase "Hairy McLairy from Donaldson's Dairy" is repeated we play in on the note C with out thumb, in time. It is just enough "practise" within a fun song to keep them engaged and learning with you. I might write down the note C on a music staff for them to look at while we play this note to show them where it is on written music.
Listening Games. We don't spend all the time sitting at the piano. I ask children to sit on the floor, or lie down, and listen to the music I play for them. We experiment with hearing minor (sad) and major (happy) and even harmonic scales, chords and simple melodies and even 3-year-olds can pick these out with ease. If interested, I will show them how I made a happy major C chord sound sad just by changing the 3rd note! They are always fascinated by this
The Blues Scale. This may sound complex, but it isn't at all. I always teach children the Blues Scale after the C Major Scale - or even before. My own children could all play the basic C Blues scales from age 3 (with some help from stickers if needed) so that they could experiment with improvising using the blues notes while I play the 12-bar blues underneath. Children LOVE the Blues. They love this game, and they can practise hand positioning in a fun way and build on their creativity. I want them to love the piano and the blues scale helps achieve this.
Play the Black notes. Using the pentatonic scale (found on the black notes) means children can play songs that always "sound good". It is a great way to practise positioning, to engage them in duets and to show them how fun music can be.
Let them work out songs for themself at first. The very best musicians can play by ear as well as following music. Let them develop this skill early - right from day 1. Whenever we start a new song, the children are asked to figure out where the notes might go next. 4-year-olds are more than capable of figuring out nursery rhymes. Support them if they get frustrated, but only show them if they ask. Let them try and figure this out, even if they are finding it difficult at first. They can do it.